The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

the_best_years_of_our_lives_film_posterIn Mark Harris’s book “Five Came Back,” Harris chronicles director William Wyler’s thoughts as he grappled with making “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He talks about his decision to cast the non-actor and real-life amputee Harold Russell as Homer, a man who lost his hands not in the war but during training. In making that choice, Wyler said he was dedicated to honesty and authenticity. He looked at thousands of veterans returning home to watch his movie, and he knew anything that didn’t ring completely true to their experience would fall flat.

Today when we think of authenticity, it’s the opposite of Hollywood endings and drama. It’s grittily real, dark and cynical. Earlier in “Five Came Back,” an early treatment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” became the novel “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor. Harris describes the book as “more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been,” and that the “hardbitten pessimism of [Glory For Me’ was tonally closer to the budding genre of postwar noir.”

This is the film that would get made today. The returning soldiers have been through hell and back, and the civilians on the home front have taken their jobs and spit in their faces, either oblivious or uncaring to the challenges of PTSD. We’ve seen it in Vietnam movies, Iraq movies and more contemporary World War II stories. And journalists would write about those films as though these were the ones that captured the reality of the world.

Except Wyler’s film today seems the most authentic. It has a classical, Hollywood-friendly love story and uplifting ending despite some tough themes and drama. “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t grapple with the extraordinary cases and nightmares but the ordinary people returning home. It’s 170 minutes long but feels intimate and small in its scope. Whereas other war films have been intrinsically tied to the politics and the pulse of the day, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels timeless. Continue reading “The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)”

Rapid Response: The Pride of the Yankees

“The Pride of the Yankees” has not aged well. It holds up for its famous closing speech and Babe Ruth, but makes Lou Gehrig one-dimensional.

We’re working on a Sports Movie issue for WEEKEND, and I hadn’t gotten around to seeing “The Pride of the Yankees” despite how I knew it was essential inspirational Old Hollywood.

And now that I have, it is certainly a staple of the old studio system. It’s corny, tame, rousing and a complete lark. It stars Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, a huge star at the time who must’ve only been cast because of how damn well he could deliver that ending speech in front of Yankee stadium, the infamous, “Today, I feel like I’m the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech.

The rest of the movie, I hate to say it, Cooper’s a bland, nervous and clumsy mama’s boy. He only knows baseball, he’s awkward in front of everyone but his parents and his stabs at personality are captured only in his own lame prat falls and his frolicking wrestling matches with his wife. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Pride of the Yankees”

Rapid Response: Shadow of a Doubt

To say “Shadow of a Doubt” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films is like saying that “Please Please Me” is one of the Beatles best albums. It may not even crack the top 10. And who else can make a movie as good as this one and not have it be in their top 10?

However, this did represent a turning point in Hitch’s already legendary career. “Shadow of a Doubt” was his first wholly “American” film. He made “Rebecca” under the American studio system, but the cast was British and so was the setting. This film starred Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten in a thriller set in the quaint coastal town of Santa Rosa.

And it says on the special features of the DVD that “Shadow of a Doubt” was in fact Hitch’s favorite film. It seems strange considering how personal “Vertigo” is, or how around the ’40s and ’50s he was considered one of the greatest directors of all time, but not for the American films he was making at the time. His British films like “The 39 Steps” were the ones that resonated with critics so strongly. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Shadow of a Doubt”